Social Sustainability: What is it? Who is its champion?

Posted: 11 May 2012 in Uncategorized

This blog post concerns local issue in my hometown. You might find something useful in the discussion of social sustainability however.

When the Davis Chamber PAC announced its City Council Candidate endorsements in late April, spokesperson Steve Greenfield noted that there are three legs of the concept of sustainability for vibrant community: social sustainability, environmental sustainability and economic sustainability. At the event Mr. Greenfield noted that the last leg—economic sustainability—was what businesses, and the Chamber PAC needed to focus on. Even though Mr. Greenfield did not define “sustainability” it is clear that he and the Chamber PAC were suggesting that a vigorous community is one that is able provide a broadly healthy environment for its citizens today AND have in place policies and practices that will enable the continual renewal of the resources necessary for a healthy community into the future.

Right at the outset I want to thank the PAC—and the business interests it represents—for taking on the challenge of defining and promoting dialogue around the idea of economic sustainability. More recent descriptions by its leadership group reveal that, to the PAC, economic development is not simply about economic growth but is concerned with other factors that foster good jobs, a safe city, good schools, etc. I look forward to further discussions about what economic development entails for Davis in this era and thank the PAC for helping to provide some leadership around the theme.

I assume that many of us have ideas around the meaning of environmental sustainability even if we do not agree with all the details about how to achieve it. Clearly, in our local environment issues of air, water and land quality would be central to any discussion of environmental sustainability because any one of them can be squandered, misused and, therefore diminish in quality and quantity over time. I will say no more about this subject except to note that it would seem that organizations like the Sierra Club or the Cool Davis Initiative would be natural “champions” for this “leg” of sustainability.

But what of “social sustainability?” What is it and who are its natural champions? While many of us have likely had conversations about economic and environmental sustainability (whether we framed them as discussions about sustainability or not), how many of us have thought or talked about social development, conserving the social fabric of our town or what it means to create a socially sustainable town? And yet, I would concur with the Chamber PAC that it is a critical leg for a stable and vigorous community.

I would like to open a discussion about the meaning of social sustainability by suggesting three key elements of a socially healthy community and close with a question about who is/are the natural champion(s) of social sustainability (as Cool Davis is for environmental sustainability or the Chamber PAC is for economic sustainability). My purpose is to suggest some elements and solicit ideas from others so we can think about this critical element of our community’s health.

I would suggest that a socially healthy (and sustainable) community is one that

1) Actively engages in creating and building social capital—especially “bridging” capital.
2) Creates dialogue spaces in which complex issues can be respectfully explored together.
3) Develops and uses an array of conflict transformation mechanisms to deal with the inevitable (and I will argue welcome) conflicts that arise in any community.

Let us look at each in turn.

1. Building social capital (especially bridging capital).

Some may debate whether social capital is a real form of capital like financial or human capital. I will not delve into that issue here but merely assume that it does exist and is defined as the set of human social relationships that enable groups to accomplish positive community actions that no individual member could accomplish alone. There are several important elements in this definition: first, it recognizes that we are social beings and that there are certain things we desire to do (for our own or the community’s good) that we cannot do without the help of others. Further, the focus is on social relationships—accomplishing these things goes beyond merely bringing multiple people together to do something (a group of people can lift a heavy object easier than a single person can but that does not mean the people involved are engaged socially). Rather, social capital evolves when trust is built and commitments are made and held to in a virtuous cycle.

Those who have studied social capital formation note two (among other) key forms of social capital—bonding and bridging capital. Bonding capital involves building deep relationships within identity groups—often out of necessity—to accomplish things that the individuals alone cannot do. In the desperately poor communities around the world in which I have worked, bonding capital is often created among extended family, tribe or ethnic groups and is often critical for survival.

I would suggest that in Davis bonding capital exists in surplus in the many “interest” groups that gather to work together, promote ideas or just have fun together. Think about the many clubs, associations, and advocacy networks that exist here and you begin to see the breadth and depth of bonding capital we have built. This is a good thing. Members of these groups often have evolved deep relationships with one another and they accomplish amazing things for our town.

However, as students of social capital have argued, bonding capital is inherently self-limiting. While it may help a relatively small group accomplish a great deal it also tends to be very narrowly focused, prone to group think and often too insular to solve more complex problems that arise in any context. To deal with these natural limitations strongly bonded groups need to be enabled or encouraged to reach out and create bridges to others to solve more complex problems.

I would argue (and I have no strong data to support this—social capital is hard to measure) that Davis has a relative dearth of bridging capital and needs more of it. I say this because I am part of several strongly bonded groups and I see how we often define ourselves in opposition to other groups rather than taking the time to ask how we might reach out to them to accomplish more and better things for our community. I also say it because I observe how strongly bonded groups approach city leadership with a focus on their narrow (that is not to say invalid) interests and often are not challenged to view their interests in light of broader community needs.

We need more bridging capital in Davis. How do we get it? I think we can begin to get it by being cognizant of our need for it and then by looking for opportunities to build it. I will use what some may consider a silly example to illustrate what bridging capital looks like here. Though some may consider it silly I would say it illustrates very well the kind of capital we need to more actively seek out and develop.

The “Tour de Cluck” is a major fundraiser for the Davis-initiated Farm to School Program. It is not only a fun event that brings people to our city from around the state, it also supports healthier eating for school children and connects them to the vital rural farm resources that are all around us. It brings visitors to our downtown thereby enhancing our economic development goals. It is “only a fundraiser” but I would maintain it is a wonderful example of bridging capital creation—one that can be mobilized for other good ends. Interest groups that are part of it include those who love to grow chickens in their back yard, advocates for healthier eating among children, rural farming families who derive tremendous benefit from connecting with consumers, the bicycling community which promotes the health and environmental benefits of biking, and I am sure there are other groups I am missing.

The point is, none of these groups would have natural connections if it were not for the vision of people like Jake Clemons who have worked hard to bring them together—to create the bridges. As a bicycle advocate I can attest that I saw relatively little benefit in this activity—until I got involved. But here is the critical point: beyond accomplishing an arguably VERY good thing (raising money for the Farm to School program) being part of this event has helped me develop many new relationships, to build trust and a sense of solidarity with others and to work towards a common end with people in my town I would not have otherwise known. I can further attest that I have already drawn on some of these relationships to accomplish other things (outside the Tour de Cluck) to try to improve the health of my town. Bridging capital expands the depth and breadth of trust relationships—a critical resource given the many things that potentially divide us.

2. Creating dialogue spaces

We face many challenging decisions as a city and in a time of reduced resources the need to move forward with adequate solutions becomes more challenging. I am sure we can all name what some of these issues are: finding and maintaining adequate funding for our schools, assuring a sustainable water supply and adequate wastewater management (perhaps the biggest, most complex issue before us at this time), dealing with unfunded city liabilities related to pensions, healthcare and critical maintenance needs, and fill in the blank with others.

These issues are complex, multivariate and emotive. They are the source of many discussions, many meetings and even more disagreements. Despite the fact that they are talked about a great deal in a great many venues, I would argue that we rarely engage in true dialogue about any of them. Dialogue implies that we go beyond presenting predetermined positions to others and find a way to step back and understand (via active listening) the needs of others with whom we may not agree or who have legitimate concerns or questions about what we are proposing. Dialogue is not debate and involves a careful process of speaking and listening, of questioning and considering—of going beyond the positions that people take to understand their needs.

We have a variety of commissions, committees, and public input processes but none of them are designed in their current form to create dialogue. This does not imply that they are not useful. But it does imply that they do not always help move us toward solutions that will sustain our community while assuring that people feel respected and listened to (even if they do not agree with the outcome).

There is no doubt that much can be learned within the context of our current public spaces. Facts can be aired and a limited number of questions raised but the communication channels in these spaces are limited and time too constrained to assure that understanding is achieved. Our emerging “virtual” spaces enable participants to delve more deeply into certain issues but are too often accompanied by non-dialogic elements that would appear to be a function of their “virtualness.” These include the problems of anonymity, lack of visual cues to show humor, anger or confusion and trolls (linked to anonymity) whose sole purpose is to sow discord.

Dialogue spaces are thus “new” spaces—spaces that are carefully structured and grounded in participant guidelines—to enable empathic listening and mutual learning to occur. Such spaces must have the following characteristics:

1. They are arranged with a clear purpose and set of “achievement-based” objectives (named outcomes that participants will seek to achieve)
2. They are structured with clear (if changing) ground rules concerning listening, speaking, and questioning (the more contentious an issue the more structure is needed).
3. They are carefully prepared to minimize the bias in viewpoints shared on a given topic (this would concern the introduction of the topic and the key facts, needs and perspectives to be explored).
4. They are facilitated by experienced facilitators who outline the objectives and assure adherence to ground rules, and act as fair arbiters when conflict or non-compliance arises.
5. They seek to uncover and name conflicting needs among participants. This implies that facilitators help participants move beyond rehearsed positions or interests and explore their and others’ needs.

What should be clear from the foregoing is that creating dialogue spaces is concerned not only with dealing with content but also with the process by which content is aired and treated. A natural question is who is responsible for organizing such spaces. A challenging question for which I have no final answer at this time (but that does not mean they are not critical to our social health).

3. Transforming Conflicts

Conflict within a community is not only inevitable, it is a public good that should be welcomed and used to help the community grow. Conflict is like the proverbial iron that sharpens iron. It arises out of the complexity of the world in which we live and helps us weigh our choices and consider alternatives. It is related to the idea of social capital because it arises as we seek to solve challenges in collaboration with people who come to the challenge with different backgrounds, experiences and needs.

Unfortunately we usually do not use conflict productively. We may simply try to avoid it—in which case it usually explodes into some form of violence at some point. We may view it as a zero sum competition in which only one “side” can prevail. Or we may simply face it as an opportunity exercise power for narrow interests (that old bonding capital reaching its logical limits).

While we do not live in a context here in Davis in which conflict devolves into physical violence among competing groups, there is no doubt that violent language and exclusion often do result. We live in a broader societal context in which it has seemingly become more important to derive short-term pleasure from “winning” or scoring “gotcha” points than to productively deal with conflict.

Notice that I am not suggesting that we learn to “manage” conflict or merely “resolve” it. Rather, I am suggesting that we need to find ways to transform it so as to release the tremendous energy we have in this community. Of course the question becomes how…

The simple fact is that none of the elements of social sustainability that I am raising here can be legislated nor developed via a policy framework. We cannot compel people to invest in bridging capital and we cannot force people into dialogue spaces. The same is true of conflict transformation.

We can, however, name it as an area of need in our community (just like we need to find revenue sources) and develop some practices that will help us move in the direction. I would suggest three practices that we could all commit to in order to transform conflicts.

1. Commit to not engaging in ad hominem attacks in any venue. This implies that we will not presume to know the motives of others (even if we are SURE we do given our long history of interacting with them). Ad hominem attacks attempt to silence or call into question the validity of someone’s views by pointing out some character flaw or talking about some action they undertook unrelated to the issue at hand.

2. Practice rephrasing the positions of others and asking open question to assure better understanding before wading in with views. In other words, approach all situations as learners first.

These two practices, obviously, involve written or verbal communication.

3. Study and begin to practice restorative principles to assure that when harms DO occur (and they will) that we will have the means to sit together with those who have harmed us or whom we have harmed to talk about the harms, discuss accountability and develop agreements to move beyond the harms.

There is a body of practice related to restoration and many communities in our nation are turning to the practices to heal wounds that emerge or have existed for many years.


By now you may be thinking that these three elements of social sustainability are just so much social science mumbo jumbo. They certainly do not lend themselves to easy step-by-step implementation programs.

Here is what I can say about my experience over 25 years in over 40 nations around the world: in societies and communities facing severe threats and resource constraints, the ones that are finding ways to provide a basic level of “health” to their members have evolved ways to bridge beyond narrow interest groups; they have evolved structured dialogue processes (often very formalized and built upon ancient traditions) and they have found ways to work through (often horribly destructive) conflict-induced violence to restore order to their communities. The examples are few and the trajectories of sustainability are never linear. There are many setbacks. The point is that these people have developed the resources that enable them to work through challenges, to start anew and to rebuild after disaster. They are resilient.

My closing questions are two:

1. What else would you add to my list of elements critical for social sustainability? (Or what would you remove from my three?)

2. In Davis, who are the natural champions for this leg of sustainability?


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